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Fostering Solidarity: The Importance of All-Island Conferences in Ireland’s Community and Voluntary Sector

05 Dec 2023
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Within the island’s community and voluntary sector, a noteworthy trend is emerging—one that promises greater collaboration, sharing of insights, and an amplified impact as the sector addresses emerging challenges. A recent increase in the number of all-island conferences focused on mutual concerns such as food poverty, cooperatives, arts therapies, and more, may help shape a new era of connectivity and cooperation. 

Breaking Down Barriers 

These conferences serve as powerful catalysts in breaking down geographical and organizational barriers. By bringing together representatives from various corners of the island, and often involving east/west or other international dimensions, these events create a dynamic space for networking, idea exchange, and collaborative problem-solving. In a landscape where challenges like food poverty demand holistic solutions, the cooperative thinking sparked by these conferences is proving invaluable.  

Just this year, for example, we’ve seen the incredible success of the 2023 All Island Women’s Forum, which brought together, for the second year in a row, women’s groups and activists from across the island to examine issues and areas of commonality North and South. While women’s voices continue to be marginalised in peace-building and decision-making forums, this conference provides a powerful and much-needed forum for bringing women together to continue creating better understanding, providing a platform for dialogue, and developing collaborative understandings of our shared island challenges and opportunities for progressive and peaceful social change.    

Pooling Resources for Greater Impact 

The community and voluntary sector has always thrived on the passion and dedication of its participants. With the rise of all-island conferences, a new avenue has opened for accessing pooled resources and expertise. Stakeholders are finding common ground, leveraging each other’s strengths, and strategizing on how to address their shared concerns. 

Amplifying Voices, Sharing Perspectives 

One of the important advantages of these conferences lies in their ability to amplify the voices of local communities. When individuals and organizations from diverse backgrounds converge to discuss topics such as the development of cooperatives or arts therapies, the richness of perspectives ensures a well-rounded understanding of the issues at hand. This inclusive approach not only enriches the dialogue but also lays the groundwork for more effective community-driven solutions. 

We’ve seen how important this kind of amplification can be with campaigns like #KeepCrossingBorders, a collaborative project that nurtured young activists during the international Solidarity LAB Training Course in 2015, and which continues its journey today. Its enduring relevance in 2023 is a testament to the enduring power of collaboration, art, and the boundless potential of the next generation. 

The necessity of making the voices of the island’s youth heard has been even more recently emphasised and exemplified by the emergence of the Shared Island Youth Forum. Launched recently by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris, this new forum will provide a platform for 80 young voices, 40 from the Republic of Ireland and 40 from Northern Ireland, to articulate their vision and values for a shared future.   

Inspiring Innovation and Best Practices 

In the collaborative environment fostered by all-island conferences, innovation becomes a shared endeavour. Attendees are exposed to a wealth of best practices, novel approaches, and successful case studies. This cross-pollination of ideas generates inspiration and equips participants with the tools to implement positive change within their own communities. 

Major conferences and initiatives like the 2nd Shared Island Forum earlier this year and the 24th Annual Conference of the Centre for Cross Border Studies this past September, illustrate how powerfully and profoundly these moments of collaboration and dialogue can affect, not just our sector, but policy and practice across the entire breadth of society on the island.  

Building Lasting Connections 

Beyond the tangible outcomes of shared initiatives, the increase in all-island conferences cultivates lasting connections. Relationships formed during these events transcend geographical boundaries, creating a network of support that endures long after the conference rooms have emptied. Relationships are, of course, at the core of almost all work within the sector, but succession issues and other challenges to sustaining organisations can mean a need for constant renewal and for maintaining or creating new networks as valuable resource for ongoing collaboration. This ensures that the ripple effects of these conferences continue to shape the community and voluntary sector across the island of Ireland. 

As we witness the growth of these all-island gatherings, it’s clear that they are more than just events—they are catalysts for a more connected, cooperative, and collaborative community and voluntary sector. By embracing the opportunities presented by these conferences, we are not only addressing immediate concerns but also sowing the seeds for a future where solidarity and shared purpose drive positive change across the entire island. 

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